Cyberbullying is not the exclusive territory of teenagers targeting each other on social media — it happens in the scuba world too. Here’s what to do if you become a target.

Cyberbullying is part of that juvenile high school mentality that leads adolescent boys and girls to target other kids — right? It certainly couldn’t happen on a forum or Facebook page devoted to scuba diving. That’s what I believed until a few months ago when I got into a discussion with a couple of divers on a well-known technical-diving forum. I had experienced the occasional catty remark in the past, but what happened as a result of my latest post became a somewhat surreal experience that left me wondering just how ugly online discussions can get.

Personal attacks

It all began because I’d written an article about an expedition to explore a flooded mine in Newfoundland. I posted the published article on several diving forums to help promote readership. A couple of divers — anonymous posters — decided that the article and the entire expedition had merely been a façade for a commercial venture. I explained how we initiated the expedition and showed that we had not factored any commercial interests into the equation.

Cyber trolls decided I was complicit in a conspiracy. The language became offensive, aggressive and very personal. I still wasn’t too worried until, ultimately, the anonymous “trolls” began to post comments that were much more ominous. “If you want to step from behind the keyboard” said one forum member, “I’d LOVE to do some full contact sparing…I’m an ex-special forces officer… get in touch I’ll make it happen.” Even more alarming, this troll seemed to be suggesting he was going to hunt me down. “I’m not hard to find…like you…so go f— yourself, it’s a small world.”

Threats like this made me wonder — were others being bullied on diving forums?

Cyberbullying in the scuba world

I posted notices on several diving forums and diving-related Facebook pages. Within a few days I’d received a number of responses.  One woman from the United States talked about an experience she’d had with a male diver whose advances she’s rebuffed. The result: “He would stalk and harass me on all of the forums…any post I made would generate a vicious attack. So I stopped making them. He created and had banned no less than eight profiles.” In this woman’s case, the cyberbullying went further: “I would try to get a local charter together; he would try to follow. I would sign up for a trip, he would sign up for the same.” Her ultimate feeling about the whole experience, “he was also terrorizing me here at home…”

Another man wrote, “It isn’t just young people who are victims of cyberbullying. I have had the unfortunate experience and it turned into a full-on stalking across two scuba forums and Facebook. The offender eventually wound up permanently banned from the scuba forums but made life hell for a while.” 

How common is cyberbullying?

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of bullying on scuba forums. In fact, a study by Pew Research in 2014 found that 40 percent of all adults have experienced some level of online bullying. And its destructive capability is well documented. In “Cyber-bullying: An exploration of bystander behavior and motivation,” the authors say, “previous research has suggested that cyberbullying may be worse for victims than traditional bullying methods because there is seemingly no escape and the harmful material is preserved and easily spread…”

Given its prevalence, I wondered what motivates someone to become a cyberbully on a diving forum? There are various theories of course. A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Why We Are So Rude Online,” credits MIT Professor Sherry Turkle with the insight that “[b]ecause it’s harder [online] to see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other.” Essentially, when we can hide our identities, there’s no telling what extreme positions we’ll adopt. Certainly, the most aggressive cyberbullies that I encountered remained anonymous. I tried to look at their profiles and they had included no information that would allow me to identify them. I deterred some of them by challenging them to come forward and publicly reveal themselves.

Should we set limits?

Some contend that limits within a certain forum make more difference than anonymity. Two researchers in the Netherlands, Tom Postmes and Russell Spears, of the University of Amsterdam, looked at the relation between anonymity and destructive behavior and found that “[t]here is no evidence of a relationship between anonymity and abuse. Everything hinges on moderators, and the key is, what is the norm of the group?” Essentially, people will do what they’re allowed to get away with. If the moderator permits cyberbullying, then it’s likely to occur.

I reported the threats I received to the moderator of the technical diving forum and he refused to act. The person who threatened me wasn’t banned. And it didn’t take much research to find other instances of abusive language and behavior on that same forum.

What can you do?

There are a lot of positive and informative diving forums online and on Facebook. I use several of them and I find them to be great sources of information — “what’s the buzz on the latest gear,” “has anyone dived this area before,” “I’m having a problem with my camera,” etc. I can find answers to all of these questions and I enjoy communicating with my fellow divers. But unfortunately, it doesn’t take much cyberbullying to taint an entire site.

All of which is to say that in a world where anyone can instantly publish their opinion, regardless of whether it is cruel or untrue, all divers have a responsibility to care about what they write online.

Certainly, I’m much more cautious when I’m posting. I make double-sure what I’m saying is accurate. I’m very circumspect about saying anything critical and certainly never anything hurtful. Meanwhile, I’ve decided that if cyberbullying can occur in a scuba forum, it can happen anywhere.

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